Wednesday, January 31, 2007


We have couscous for supper almost every week. Cold, often: I make it before going to my piano lesson, so we can eat it as soon as I get back.

After various experiments, I always use the following method for preparing the couscous (about 75 g for each of us), despite what packet instructions may say. (Most couscous on sale here is pre-cooked, and does not need the steaming that recipes may specify). I pour boiling water over it until it is soaked, stopping before the water level rises above the level of the grains. I cover the dish and put it into a hot oven -- it does not matter how hot -- for five minutes. The grains emerge in a solid clump, but separate when you stir in other ingredients, particularly oily ones.

I think that a couple of tbsps of pine nuts, which I toast in a dry saucepan, adds a lot of interest to the bland grains. I like parsley in there too. Last night, I roasted cubes of butternet squash, tossed with olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper; I added mushrooms and garlic to the tin with 15 minutes (of about 45) to go. I also stirred in some cold chicken. I divided the mixture in half, and stirred a tsp of harissa into my portion.

The mushrooms were a mistake: I should remember that when you cook them in oil or butter and let them get cold they acquire an unappealing -- greasy and rubbery -- texture.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fried potatoes

One way of frying potatoes is to parboil them before crisping them in shallow fat. It's a fiddly process, and the potatoes break up easily -- all to the good, some might say. An easier method is to treat them as you would chips: submerging them in fat, cooking them gently until they are soft, and turning up the heat to brown them. It works deliciously with both new and maincrop potatoes.

Even the largest, 28 cm frying pan will accommodate only about four medium potatoes in a single layer. You need the best part of half a litre of oil -- I use sunflower. Pour it into the pan, and set the pan on a low to medium heat. Peel the potatoes, and cut them into 1 cm cubes. Wipe them with a paper towel to absorb some of the moisture, which would cause the oil to bubble alarmingly; but, provided the oil is not too hot, a little moisture will not cause an overflow. Drop a small piece of bread into the oil; when it sizzles, you can tip in the potatoes. Once they are cooking, you may find that you can turn down the flame further.

The potatoes should be soft in about 15 minutes. Turn up the flame to medium/high. The potatoes will brown in about five minutes. You may need to turn some of them.

Lift them out of the oil with a slotted spoon, drain them on kitchen paper, and sprinkle them with salt.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Forced rhubarb

The New Statesman has given me a food column, which will appear every two weeks, alternating with the drinks column by Roger Scruton. My latest effort, on forced rhubarb, is here. What I did not write about was the issue discussed on Radio 4's The Food Programme yesterday: that warmer winters are disabling the forced rhubarb growers of Yorkshire.

You might not think that a crop brought to maturity indoors would be affected by the weather. But the plants are kept outside before being transferred to the forcing sheds; and they need cold winters. The weather over the past few years has not been helpful.

Still, there is forced rhubarb in the shops, and it is delicious. The tenderest stems do not need pre-cooking if going into a pie or crumble: just cut them into short lengths, and mix them with sugar and perhaps a little ground ginger and nutmeg. The disadvantage is that are not able to tell whether you are happy with the level of sweetness before you bake the pie. My estimate is that a tbsp of brown sugar should be about right for 500 g of rhubarb.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Hash is comfort food from leftovers. You fry some onions, throw in cold meat and potatoes and perhaps some gravy, let a crust develop, and turn the mass as best you can to brown the other side. The problem, I find, is that bits of the mixture stick to the pan. I prefer to form the potato (mashed) and meat into cakes; but then the problem is that the cakes fall to bits. Binding them with flour produces a glutenous texture. As I have written before, the best technique -- though not an infallible one -- is to fry the cakes quickly and transfer them to a baking sheet in the oven before they have a chance to disintegrate.

My potatoes were not leftovers. Cooking for two of us, I cut up and simmered four medium ones until tender. I drained them and let them cool. (Their texture tightens: that is not what you want for fluffy mash, but it produces the more adherent mass you need here.) I had a small bag of sprouts -- about 150 to 200 g, I should guess. I steamed them for seven minutes, until they gave a little but retained some crunch. I chopped them roughly. I chopped a large handful of parsley. I chopped about two large handfuls of cold chicken. I mashed the potato, and mixed it with the other ingredients as well as salt and pepper. I formed the mixture into six cakes, which I fried in hot groundnut oil for a couple of minutes on each side, before giving them 10 minutes in the oven at gas mark 6/200 C.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Jo asked what to do with swede, and The Phantom suggested boiling it and mashing it, possibly with carrots but certainly with lots of butter and pepper. Add haggis and whisky, and you have a supper for tonight, Burns Night. "I conclude that otherwise swede is a vegetable to be avoided," Jane Grigson says.

Alastair Little and Richard Whittington in Keep It Simple -- a book that little more than 10 years ago was the essential tool for a fashionable dinner party, but that is now out of print -- give a recipe for turnip, swede and carrot puree. You boil equal quantities of the vegetables with a chopped onion, and blitz them with butter, cream, nutmeg, salt and pepper. I should prefer to cook them in just a little water with some butter in a covered pan, checking regularly to see that they do not dry out -- the carrots particularly retain their colour and sweetness that way.

At the weekend, Nigel Slater recommended placing some paper over the vegetables that were sweating for a soup (scroll down for the soup recipe). I tried it yesterday. It seemed to me that the water evaporated just as quickly as it would have done with only the covering of the lid; but that perhaps the vegetables softened more efficiently. I shall need to experiment further.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Beetroot -- braising is best

If you belong to a vegetable box scheme, you're probably getting rather more beetroot at the moment than usually forms a part of your diet. That is my excuse for returning to the subject. (This was my previous entry.)

I have tried three methods of cooking them. First, I braised them in the oven. The second time, I roasted them in foil. The third time, I tried the hybrid method recommended in a Growing Communities leaflet: I boiled them, then roasted them. You wash them gently, put them in boiling water ( the leaflet said 30 minutes, but they needed an hour longer than that), peel them, and put them in the oven at gas mark 5/190 C for 15 minutes.

Method one is still my favourite. The beetroot were moister, and sweeter. Of course, I cannot be sure that they were not better beetroot, or that I was not simply lucky in timing them to perfection.

Sliced, and with a sprinkling of red wine or balsamic vinegar, they are a perfect complement to goat's cheese or feta. (On the subject of feta, I was pleased to see that the Times at the weekend shared my enthusiasm for the Cypressa brand.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Chicken at gas mark "S"

I have been banging on here, ever since my first entry, about roasting at low oven settings. A good principle is: decide how long your meat should stay in the oven; roast it at the lowest temperature that will cook it in that time. Belly pork and shoulder of lamb can withstand long cooking, so you turn the dial to low, put in the joints, and forget about them for several hours. Duck, turkey and chicken have lean breasts that dry out easily. You want to speed the cooking, and to burnish the skin, with a high heat; but you do not need that high heat for the entire time that it will take to tenderise the tougher meat on the birds' thighs.

When I cooked a duck, I started it at gas mark 6/200 C, and turned down the dial to "S" (about 130 C in my oven) after half an hour. I follow roughly the same procedure with chicken, but usually with the second setting of gas mark 2/150 C. At the weekend, I gambled with the lowest setting. I took the chicken out of the fridge three hours before it was due to go in the oven. I turned on the oven at full heat for 20 minutes before the chicken was due to go in. I turned down the dial to gas mark 6, put in the chicken for half an hour, and turned down the dial to "S".

The 2 kg chicken was cooked, and bronzed, after an hour and fifty minutes. My conclusion is that roasting recipes specify higher oven temperatures than are necessary.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Steamed lemon pudding

Gordon Ramsay's column in the Times magazine is not quite my cup of tea. Collections of recipes -- albeit more approachable ones than usually come from celebrity chefs -- are more dismaying than inspiring, I find. I notice the ingredients I don't have, the equipment I don't have, and the techniques in which I am deficient, and I move on. However, I have been wanting to cook a steamed pudding since the trees became bare, and I found an appealing one in Ramsay's column at the weekend. You can read it here (scroll down), so I'll merely offer my comments.

Ingredients. I did not have an unwaxed lemon, so I used an ordinary one. I used golden caster sugar. My eggs were medium; I used three whole ones. I did not make the lemon curd; we ate the pudding with cream.

2. "Whisk the butter and sugar." I do not have an electric whisk, so I have to press the butter and sugar together with a spoon. What does curdling look like in this context? My egg, sugar and egg became very grainy, as always; but everything smoothed out once I added the flour.

3. I do not own plastic pudding moulds. I have a glass basin, which worked fine. Having once ruined a baked cheesecake by allowing the surrounding water to seep into the cake tin, I was determined to protect this pudding thoroughly. I put greaseproof paper on top, surrounding it from underneath with a layer of foil. I put another layer of foil on top of the basin, wrapping it underneath. I put a third layer of foil underneath the basin, wrapping it on top. The foil clung to the basin, and did not need tying with string.

The vessel that contained the basin most snugly, but that also allowed space for water, was my 22 cm Le Creuset. I poured boiling water round the basin until it came half way up the side, brought it back to the boil on the hob, covered the pot, and simmered gently for an hour and a half. I topped up the water after an hour.

The pudding had a satisfying, moist stodginess, balanced with a lemony tang. Lovely. Thanks, Gordon.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lamb boulangere

The last time I roasted a shoulder of lamb, I had smothered it with such a delicious marinade that I wanted to serve the resultant sauce separately, rather than allow it to be absorbed by surrounding potatoes. Last weekend, I decided to cook potatoes with the lamb. They would need, I thought, a slightly higher heat than the bottom of the oven -- as used for the previous dish -- would provide; but I still thought that my lowest oven setting would do the job.

How do you guess how long a joint of meat will take to cook in a low oven, when all the books give timings for gas mark 4/180 C and above? I had a half shoulder; I hazarded a guess at four hours, with the security of knowing that this joint, being fatty, can take long cooking without drying out. I rubbed a little olive oil over it, and sprinkled it with salt, pepper and chopped garlic. I put it in a roasting tin in the centre of my oven, with a sprig of rosemary on top, at the "S" setting, which my oven thermometer tells me is 130 C.

The potatoes did not need so long. For this dish, I often do not parboil them first -- the slimy toughness of the starchy surfaces is quite pleasant, I think. The drawback is that they are more likely to stick to the tin. This time, to get rid of that sticky starch, I sliced the potatoes into a saucepan of cold water, brought the pan to the boil, allowed it to simmer for a minute or so, and drained.

With an hour of cooking time left, I took the lamb out of the oven, transferred it to a board, tipped the potatoes into the tin, turned them in the juices, put the lamb back on top, and returned the tin to the oven. An hour later, I took out the lamb and transferred it to a warm dish, which I left in the warm grill section. The potatoes were starting to brown, even at that low heat; and some of them were stuck -- perhaps because the sauce caramelised? I turned them, and put them back into the oven at gas mark 7/220 C to crisp. They took about 20 minutes.

This dish comes without gravy, of course. I don't think it needs it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Grilled fennel

I once interviewed Nico Ladenis, who told me that he abhorred the fashion for grilled vegetables. They were burned, and yet undercooked. It seemed that the jacket of every cook book of the time -- this was the mid-90s -- featured a blackened vegetal concoction. "The pictures make me feel ill," Nico shuddered.

Fennel appears to be a terrible candidate for grilling, because it does not soften easily when subjected to dry heat. But a ridged grill pan is ideal when preparing fennel for a salad. Trim the stalks, and slice the fennel quite thinly -- about the width of a pound coin -- lengthways through the root, so that the root holds the vegetable together. Grill the slices, dry, on a grillpan on a low flame, until they are translucent -- about 15 minutes. Toss them while still hot in a vinaigrette. The sauce softens them; but they retain an al dente texture, and a flavour of sweetened aniseed. They go well with bitter leaves, grilled or roasted peppers, olives, orange or grapefruit, and cheese -- particularly goat's.

I am often unsure how much fennel to trim. "Remove any tough or discoloured outer leaves," recipes say; once you have done that, the bulb is usually less than half its original size.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Like all green vegetables, spinach benefits from quick cooking that retains its colour and nutrients. To make the process as speedy as possible, some cooks recommend plunging the leaves into a big pot of boiling water -- but that, nutritionally, is not best practice. A common technique is to shove the spinach into a pot, clamp on the lid, and cook it at a high heat until it wilts -- but the advocates of boiling do not like this technique, claiming that it cooks the spinach unevenly and causes some of the leaves to stew for too long.

I tried cooking spinach in my steamer last night. But the process was too slow, I think. I prefer method two, above: wash the spinach, transfer the wet leaves to a colander, transfer them again to a pot, clamp on the lid, and put the pot on a high heat. After a minute or so, take off the lid; if the leaves are starting to wilt, you can stir the top ones into the boiling liquid below. Carry on stirring. All the leaves should be cooked in another minute or less. Drain.

I have read that spinach loses nutrients as it cools. Is that true? I hope not, because I often allow it to cool, squeeze out the liquid with my hands, and reheat the leaves gently with some butter, salt and pepper, and perhaps some nutmeg.

Or what I did last night: fried mushrooms and garlic, stirred in four bottled anchovies until they melted, and added the squeezed spinach and some cream. I then divided this sauce between two saucepans, adding to my portion four whizzed, dried chillis -- an excessive number, but that's what I like. We ate this sauce with penne.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sicilian cauliflower

Firm, white heads of cauliflower often tempt me to buy them; but, too often, I take them home and turn them into cauliflower cheese. Or, to go with pasta, I mix them with anchovies, chillis, pine nuts and sometimes sultanas -- a Sicilian theme similar to the one in the following recipe, adapted from Jane Grigson (and which would have benefited from chilli). I used less olive oil than the very substantial quantity (250 ml) she specifies; she lists red wine, but vinegar works well; I used more olives; I doubled her quantity of anchovies, because I did not want to be left with half a tin. They are pleasantly savoury, rather than overpoweringly fishy.

1 medium cauliflower
6 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
20 stoned, sliced olives (I used black ones)
1 small tin anchovies
60 g hard cheese, such as pecorino or provolone (but I used cheddar), sliced
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

Separate the cauliflower into florets. Pour half the olive oil into a heavy pan or casserole, add half the onion, olives and anchovies, put half the cauliflower and cheese on top with just a little salt (the anchovies and cheese are salty) and grindings of pepper, and repeat the process. Sprinkle the vinegar on top. Cover, and put on a medium heat until the contents of the pan are cooking; turn down the heat to low to medium.

"Do not muddle up the dish by stirring," Jane Grigson cautions. But it is a muddle anyway -- these ingredients do not sit in discrete layers. The cauliflower should be tender in 10 minutes or less. You will probably find that there is still liquid in the pan; if so, take off the lid and raise the heat.

The Vegetable Book is delightfully insouciant about fat (Grigson's cauliflower au gratin is a heart attack on a plate). She recommends that you turn your Sicilian cauliflower on to a serving dish "and sprinkle generously with little cubes of fried bread". We ate ours with rice.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Brussel tops

Brussel tops appear sporadically at my greengrocer in the winter, and as a result have the allure of a special treat. A special treat, moreover, that costs just a few pence.

True, they are not refined fare. Jane Grigson -- unenthusiastic about greens in general -- concedes only that she has "a slight affection" for them. You have to accept that they will be course, because if you try to cook them until they soften, you lose their bright colour and leafy, pleasantly astringent flavour.

You strip the leaves from the stalks, and wash them. I put them into the steamer for five minutes, drain them, and toss them in butter, with some salt and plenty of pepper.

As do other greens, brussel tops go well with garlic, chilli and anchovy. One might soften the garlic and a whizzed dry chilli in butter or olive oil, stirring in just a couple of tinned anchovies -- assuming you've got enough greens for four people -- until they melt. Then stir in the drained leaves.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Chilli fishcakes

The Sunday Times last week ran extracts from Neris and India's Idiot-Proof Diet. There was a recipe for Thai Salmon Fishcakes. Of course, I did not have any lemon grass or fresh coriander; I used more chilli than they recommended; I included lime juice and ginger; and I decided that groundnut oil was more appropriate than olive oil. And I changed the technique a little. Apart from those things . . .

2 chillis (I had Scotch Bonnets, which are very hot; I removed the membrane and seeds)
4 spring onions
Small piece of ginger
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 egg
Tin of salmon
Salt and pepper
Groundnut oil

Put the chillis, spring onions, ginger and lime juice into a small, electric herb mill or coffee grinder, and blend. The mixture will be quite runny. Neris and India tell you to blend these ingredients with the egg in a food processor, adding the salmon and seasoning and blending again; but I beat the egg, tipped in the drained salmon with the salt and pepper, added the mixture from the mill, and mashed it all up with a fork.

Looking at this sloppy mess, you think, "Fishcakes?" But carry on: heat a puddle of oil above a medium flame in a frying pan, and add the mixture in spoonfuls. Allow these blobs -- if you've used a tbsp, you'll probably have about six -- to crisp on their undersides, before flipping them over. They won't be perfectly formed, but they will firm up.

Warning. The tinned salmon, especially when cooked, may remind you of something you'd give to a cat. The stink lingers, too.

But I enjoyed the fishcakes. This number would be enough for two; I ate them all, with rice.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

White chocolate panna cotta

You never know where you'll come across an interesting recipe. My friend Carolyn Hart, in her delightful Cooks' Books, finds dishes for her standard repertoire from sources ranging from supermarket recipe cards to the Zane Grey Cookbook. I have found one in the Raceform Update.

The Update has a column called "Eyecatchers", which is supposed to tell you about horses worth following. But when a racing writer called Lee Mottershead does his stint, he indulges himself, before giving his opinions on horses to back ante-post for Cheltenham, with some preliminary chat about recipes. Last week, he wrote about panna cotta. His recipe included 750 ml milk and cream, a vanilla pod, 60 g caster sugar, 200 g white chocolate, and three gelatine leaves.

I have written about panna cotta before. In that recipe, you whip some of the cream and fold it into the rest of the mixture. It concentrates the creaminess, I suppose; but what I find unsatisfactory about the process is that the cream tends to remain in globules unless you beat it in. Waiting for the mixture to cool and thicken a little before adding the whipped cream is a pain, because you do not know how long the thickening will take, or whether you'll be free at the appropriate moment. Lee Mottershead's recipe involved no whipping.

However, I did not have 600 ml cream. So I went out and bought just one, 100 g bar of Green & Black's white chocolate. I did not have a vanilla pod either, so I thought that I needed to bother only with heating enough milk and cream to dissolve the sugar and the gelatine. (In Lee Mottershead's recipe, you simmer the milk, cream, vanilla and sugar, then dissolve the chocolate in the mixture, then add the gelatine.) Only as I write this does it occur to me that the recipe is called panna cotta (cooked cream) for a reason; and that simmering the milk and cream for a while would achieve the concentration that whipping performed in my earlier recipe.

Anyway, let's continue with what I did, because it turned out alright. When I got round to measuring the cream, I found that I had more than I had thought: 450 ml. I topped that up with 150 ml milk. So my recipe would have a lower concentration of chocolate than Lee Mottershead recommended.

450 ml double cream
150 ml milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tbsp caster sugar
100 g white chocolate
3 leaves gelatine

Warm the cream, milk, vanilla essence and sugar in a small saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Meanwhile, soak the gelatine in cold water for about 4 minutes, until it goes slithery. Squeeze it gently. Take the pan off the heat, and stir in the gelatine, which should dissolve easily.

Break up the chocolate, and melt it in a bowl above a saucepan of simmering water. Pour the cream mixture over it, stirring to incorporate the chocolate. You should have enough panna cotta to fill six ramekins.

This panna cotta did not have the usual wobbly, gelatinous quality. The best description I can give is entirely unimaginative: it was a thick, chocolatey cream. I am glad I did not have any more chocolate: the mixture would have been too cloying. But, next time, I shall simmer and reduce the cream and milk.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Food writers often advise you to cook leeks whole. That is fine for the slim, elegant ones that you find in summer; but the chunky ones prevalent now can be tough to cut up with a knife and fork. They are slimy too: consulting McGee, I learn that they owe this quality to long-chain carbohydrates, which will gel when chilled.

Sliced leeks, boiled or steamed, can be very watery. The answer, I think, is to slice them, soak them for a while (they may be gritty), and sweat them gently in a covered pan with a knob of butter, adding a little water if they start catching. Uncover the pan when they start to soften, to allow water to evaporate. The leeks retain a bright colour and fresh flavour.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


My local shops sell a Tunisian brand of harissa called Le Phare du Cap Bon. It is good, and has a kick -- though less of one, I was interested to discover, in France, to which the Tunisians appear to export a milder version. But it lacks the zing of a home-made sauce.

The small dried chillis that are widely available are not ideal for the job. They are viciously hot; even I, a lover of hot things, find that they blowtorch flavour out of the food. The sauce should be fiery, but with a heady spiciness.

I got a tube of Bart aji amarillo chillis in my Christmas stocking. They are very hot too: next time I use them, I shall remove the membrane and seeds. But they make a more flavoursome harissa.

1 Bart aji amarillo chilli
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 clove garlic
Olive oil

Pour boiling water over the chilli, and leave to soak for half an hour or longer. (It has to be soft before it can be worked into a paste.) Meanwhile, put the caraway and cumin into a dry saucepan, and cook over a gentle heat until toasted.

Cut the chilli into pieces, and put it into an electric herb mill or coffee grinder -- if you don't have either, you'll need a pestle and mortar -- with the caraway, cumin, garlic (which you might want to chop a bit first), and a drop or two of olive oil. Whizz. You'll probably need to scrape the sides of the mill, and whizz again. Add a little salt. Keep adding drops of oil until the mixture starts to form a smooth paste.

Most harissa recipes include caraway. Some include coriander instead of, or in addition to, the cumin.

Store the harissa, with a layer of oil covering it, in a small jar in the fridge.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Commenting on my post about lentils, Will Skidelsky said that he had never succeeded in making the perfect dhal. I do not think that I have, either; but I have been reasonably happy with my imperfect versions. The secret of happiness is not to allow one's enjoyment to be spoiled by an awareness of the gulf between the food on one's plate and anything that might be considered authentic.

You have to cook the red lentils -- or perhaps yellow ones (which are not really lentils), or the pulse sometimes known as mung dhal -- in a covered pan with enough water or stock to soften them, but then uncover the pan to allow the contents to thicken. They start to collapse after 10 to 15 minutes.

I follow roughly the formula I use for a vegetable curry. Allowing 200 g lentils for a substantial main course for two people (it would provide a side dish for four), I simmer them with 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, 1/3 tsp chilli powder or cayenne pepper, and 40 g creamed coconut. Meanwhile, I fry two onions in a sunflower/groundnut oil and butter mix, with 1 clove chopped garlic. I warm 1/2 tsp of cumin seeds and 1/2 tsp of coriander seeds in a dry pan until they give off a toasted aroma, and crush them in a mortar with five cardamom pods. When the onions are brown (there is more about browning onions here), I add the spices to them, along with a small amount of minced ginger, and cook them for a minute. I stir the spicy onions into the lentils, which I like to have the consistency of lava, and serve.

Fresh, chopped coriander and chillis are a nice garnish. Some people like toasted almond flakes.

These are the ingredients I am most likely to have available. Another option is a soupy Thai one, with a can of coconut milk, nam pla, shallots, lemon grass, lime leaves, lime juice, ginger, fresh coriander, and fresh chillis. You make a paste with the shallots, lemon grass, lime leaves, lime juice and ginger; and you fry it. You add it to the lentils, which you have simmered with the coconut milk, some stock, and nam pla.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Frozen vegetables

Nigella Lawson made frozen peas respectable; fashionable even. Until How To Eat appeared, some of us had assumed that the starchiness of so many fresh peas was an indication of superiority, and the price we paid for worthiness. In the Guardian before Christmas, Marco Pierre White asserted that frozen sprouts were nicer than fresh ones (his comments are here). We had some frozen fine beans at Christmas; they were good, and far preferable to those muddy Kenyan ones. I wish they were more widely available.

I may have overstretched the envelope in buying a pack of frozen broccoli florets. "They're all mushy," a daughter complained; and it was true that I had overcooked them slightly. But I suspect that any vegetable with a tendency to mushiness will go mushy very easily if cooked from frozen.

I have read that frozen vegetables contain more nutrients than fresh ones, because the freezing takes place soon after picking. I wonder if anyone has tested this theory.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Even the humble lentil requires a little thought in preparation. Do you cook them with flavouring vegetables, or do you add the vegetables at the end? Do you simmer them in plenty of water, or in just as much as they will absorb?

On the first point, I have come round to the view that cooking the vegetables apart is best. I soften diced onion, carrot and celery with chopped garlic in olive oil until they are golden, and tip them into the lentils for just a five-minute merging. Vegetables go null if boiled for too long.

Making a salad, I simmer lentils and drain them. That way, I can make sure that they retain distinct shapes rather than turning to mush, and I can lose as much water as possible before adding oil and vinegar.

Stewing lentils, I prefer the absorption method. Recipe books tend to advise you to cover the lentils with water and simmer them for half an hour, implying that after that time the water will have been absorbed and the lentils will be tender; but of course it never works as neatly as that. You have to tend to them every so often. Rinse them in a sieve, put them in a saucepan, and cover them with water with about 1 cm to spare. Bring to the boil, turn down the flame, and cover the pan. Check after 10 minutes: the water may well have vanished. Pour in just enough more (I use hot water from a kettle, but you could add cold, turning up the heat until the lentils simmer again) to be level with the topmost lentils. Cover the pan again. And so on, until the lentils are tender.

I do as the recipes advise, and wait until this stage to add salt -- my experiments with dried beans suggest that this is a sensible procedure. But I might have flavoured the cooking water with a bay leaf, and/or a whole garlic clove or two, and/or an onion. Now I add the oil-softened vegetables, along with chopped parsley if I have it, and a good deal of pepper. I allow the ingredients to get to know each other -- Fergus Henderson's phrase -- for five minutes longer.

I am talking here about green (Puy, if you're lucky) lentils, or brown ones. The grey/brown ones are less interesting. Red ones, which soon go mushy, are best for dhals and soups.

The other day, I cooked the lentils in advance. They carried on absorbing liquid as they cooled. By the time I warmed them up again, they had a perfect consistency.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Roasted garlic

Roasted garlic is creamy and seductive, its pungency tamed to a rich sweetness. The problem is that the time it takes to reach this state is unpredictable. Undercook the cloves, and they might as well be raw; overcook them, and they shrivel.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has a recipe in his valuable River Cottage Meat Book for pork chops with garlic cloves. You fry the chops and garlic, and finish cooking them for about 20 minutes in the oven. But garlic -- particularly the stuff around at the moment -- is rarely tender in that time. At the weekend, I simmered the cloves with some potatoes (which I was preparing to mash). Then I roasted them with the chops. They were still hard. Oh well: they added some of their flavour to the sauce.

Next time, I shall simmer the cloves until I am sure that they are yielding.

You can roast/steam whole heads of garlic in foil packages. But be prepared to be flexible, allowing a cooking time that might vary between 45 and 90 minutes.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Slow, honey-roast duck

Duck benefits from slow roasting. The more tender the leg meat, the better; and the breast meat can withstand longer cooking than can that of turkey or chicken thanks to lubrication from its surrounding fat. Another reason why I prefer to give a duck longer in the oven is that I have found that conventional timings -- usually those also recommended for chicken -- are rarely sufficient.

Gary Rhodes, in New British Classics, has a recipe for slowly roasted duck with honey. You smear your duck with 5 tbsp honey, and roast it at gas mark 3/160 C. That is too much honey, in my opinion; and an unnecessarily high oven temperature.

I had a 2.8 kg duck. I was not confident that I could cook it successfully if I used only the lowest oven setting; but my experience with chicken suggested that the setting would work provided that there was an initial blast of heat. I took the duck out of the fridge three hours early. I made little incisions in the skin with the sharp point of a knife (I wonder if this is necessary -- the fat would probably run freely anyway), rubbed in some salt (a daughter would have objected if I had used pepper as well), and stuffed the bird with a lemon and a star anise.

I put the duck into the middle of an oven pre-heated to gas mark 6/200 C, for half an hour. Then I took it out of the oven, and spread over it 1 tbsp honey -- which might have burned at the high temperature. I returned the duck to the oven, now at its lowest setting, marked with an "S".

This setting, in my oven, is not very low. My oven thermometer -- which I must assume is roughly accurate -- rose to 130 C, which is not far off the official temperature of gas mark 1.

I cooked the duck for a further three hours, basting it regularly. Half way through cooking, and again near the end, I drained the juices into a glass bowl, allowed them to settle, and spooned off the fat. You cannot perform this process with total accuracy; after I had reduced the fat to a thin layer on top of the juices, I blotted off as much of the rest as I could with pieces of paper towel.

I made a stock with the duck giblets; but the juices from the roasting tin provided enough sauce.

When I took the duck out of the oven, I moved the shelf on which it had been sitting to a higher position, turned up the dial to gas mark 8/230 C, and put in another roasting pan with a layer of duck fat. After five minutes, I tipped in some parboiled cubes of potato, which roasted -- with one turning -- in 30 minutes, while the duck was resting.

The skin of the duck was a lovely, golden brown -- although not, I must admit, crisp. The sauce, with its honey and lemon and star anise, had just the right sweetness and acidity and savouriness to offset the richness of the meat.